This canyon on the north end of Missoula is a favorite for locals who want to get away from the city and go walking, biking, or horseback riding in the woods. My impression is, this trail is not as much about “wow” scenery as it is about relaxing outdoors. The main path through Rattlesnake Canyon provides access to many other trails that venture further into the Rattlesnake Wilderness.
When I arrived in Missoula in the mid-afternoon, I didn’t know how I was going to spend the rest of my day. So, when I checked into my motel, I asked the clerk if there were any good places to hike nearby. The answer was something like, “Um, yeah!”… immediately followed with the question that I hate, “what are you looking for?”
I didn’t really know what I was looking for. I was hoping he’d have an instant answer, something along the lines of “you absolutely have to go to so-and-so.” Instead, I had to describe what I wanted. A nice place to hike. Maybe for an hour or two. Not too much uphill. Nice scenery.
He named a few places, and then we whittled them down to his favorite: Rattlesnake Canyon. He told me it was where the local folks go, when they want to get outside. I figured the locals can’t be wrong.
The one thing I should have added to my list was this: the trail needs to go somewhere, like a waterfall or a lake or an overlook. Rattlesnake Canyon will take you somewhere, but you’d need a full day. I didn’t have that much time. But, I decided to give it a try for a while, anyhow.
I don’t want to disparage Rattlesnake Canyon in any way. It’s a shady, peaceful, easily walkable path through the lush greenery provided by the moisture from Rattlesnake Creek. Much of the way, you’re near the creek, which means you’re hearing the gentle trickle of water, just out of sight, beyond some trees.
Not very far up the trail, a footbridge provides access to the east side of the creek, while the main trail stays on the west side.
The bridge gives you the opportunity to see the water you’ve been hearing.
After that, there’s a clearing…
… and then more trees. I hiked at a comfortable pace for about a half-hour, which probably means I walked for a mile, maybe a mile and a half. I began to realize that I had seen everything there was to see, and while it was a relaxing, peaceful, and beautiful place, I wanted to go some place where there was something to photograph. So, I turned around, and headed back to the car. My total hiking time was just a little under an hour.
So if I had more time, what would I have found? In 8 miles, I would have reached Franklin Bridge, which crosses Rattlesnake Creek. In 17 miles from the trailhead, I would have arrived at the end of the trail at Little Lake (which is at least 2,200 feet higher than the start of the trail — it doesn’t stay flat forever). I also could have turned off the main corridor and gone up Stuart Peak Trail, and in 12 miles, reached Stuart Peak.
If I had a mountain bike, and I could have biked part of the trail and hiked the rest, perhaps I could have reached one of these destinations and returned in a day. But it would have taken a full day.
So what did I end up doing? With the time remaining in the day, I decided to go to a much more touristy hiking spot — one that would provide me with a great view. I hiked up to the giant “L” on Mount Jumbo. I may not have found exactly what I was looking for, at Rattlesnake Canyon, but I’m still glad I got to experience a spot that’s popular with the locals.
The Bottom Line
Rattlesnake Canyon is perfect for a relaxing walk in the woods, so long as you’re not expecting any ‘wow’ moments from the scenery. It would be even better on a mountain bike, since you could cover the miles more quickly.
From Interstate 90, take exit 105 and head north on Van Buren Street. It will turn into Rattlesnake Drive and head through a residential neighborhood. As the canyon narrows, watch for Sawmill Gulch Road, take a left, then a right, and you’ll arrive at the trailhead.
Rattlesnake Trail might look like a road on some maps, including Google Maps. That’s because it used to be a road, but is now closed to motorized vehicles.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive from Flathead Lake to Missoula, Montana, with some extra driving-around in downtown Missoula near the end: